How Do I Get Better At Smelling Fragrances?

The question that I usually hear from those new to fragrance, or from those who’ve been at it awhile, is, “How do I get better at smelling fragrances?” Fragrance can be overwhelming, and, if you’ve asked this question, you’re not alone. How can you recognize fragrance notes if you’ve never smelled them before?

Scary though new notes might seem, there are a few easy ways to get a better idea of what’s under your nose. The best way to get acquainted with the elements of perfumery is to smell individual ingredients in isolation to make them easier to identify. Just as it’s impossible to describe a color that you’ve never seen, it can be difficult to recognize a fragrance note that you’ve never smelled. You may need a reference.

A quick note: if you judge fragrances according to the “like it/don’t like it” scale and that works for you, then, by all means, continue to do it. Your enjoyment of a fragrance is not lessened by choosing it based on that standard. After all, what really matters is that it makes you happy, and it is not for me, or anyone else, to say otherwise.

Sample the Building Blocks

As I said, it’s helpful to have a reference for individual materials so that you can recognize them as part of a full fragrance. It becomes much easier to recognize the signal amongst the noise, so to speak, if you’ve “heard” the signal before.

There’s a famous thought experiment in philosophy that can help demonstrate the point. Suppose that Mary has been raised in an isolated room all her life. She’s been educated extensively in history, the physical sciences (including the nature of light and color), mathematics, language, etc. But not once, ever, has Mary seen the color red. It has been excluded from every element in her room, every possession, every textbook. She’s never even seen anything resembling red. If you were suddenly to release her from this room and allow her out into the real world, how would she experience red? Would she learn anything?

There’s a huge body of literature that argues yes. The experience of seeing a color is different (and much better) than just knowing how the wavelengths reach your eyes. The same is true for a specific fragrance note. The description of a rose pales in comparison to the experience of smelling it. But how do you smell individual fragrance notes separately from full perfumes?

Luckily, there are quite a few websites that offer small samples of raw materials for you to smell. Eden Botanicals deals in some of the finest quality natural products available. Perfumer’s Apprentice and Perfumer Supply House both offer a variety of natural and synthetic fragrance materials, all of them very high quality. Each of these companies offers inexpensive samples which allow you to try out whatever might catch your fancy.

So what should you try? The options are dizzying and many of them may sound unfamiliar. Here’s a list of some relatively common naturals that are worth sampling:

Try Smelling Simple Accords

Individual materials are a start, but they’re not the full picture. When composing a new fragrance, perfumers usually begin with an “accord.” Accords are combinations of specific notes and form the backbones of most fragrance formulas.

There are lots of accords. You may have heard the terms “chypre” (“sheep-ruh”) and “fougère” (“foo-zhair”) when people talk about fragrances. These are two of the major accords of classical perfumery and give rise to fragrance families of the same names. Each gives a specific impression and overall “feel” to a fragrance.

But how would you know one if you smelled it? Several of the websites mentioned previously can provide samples of finished accords with which you can familiarize yourself. Perfumer’s Apprentice offers both a fougère accord and a chypre accord. Perfumer’s Supply House sells samples of Mousse de Saxe, one of the most famous and influential accords of all time.

Some accords exist because it’s not possible to capture a scent from nature. Lily of the Valley, for instance, a highly poisonous flower native to Europe, does not yield essential oil. If you’ve ever smelled a lily of the valley fragrance, the aroma was the product of artificial chemistry. Perfumer’s Apprentice sells samples of the accord to any who want to try it.

There is infinite variation in the different sorts of accords. In addition to those already mentioned, here are a few of the more common types:

Putting It All Together

The best way to use these samples is to smell a fragrance that you know contains a certain note, such as lavender, and then smell the sample right next to it. This is best done on either a smelling strip or on your wrist. Safety tip: never put undiluted fragrance material on your skin. It can cause allergic reactions and severe skin irritation, up to and including chemical burns. As I have noted in the past, the dose makes the poison.

The best way to work with a fragrance material for these purposes is to dilute it first. Most perfumers evaluate materials at about 10% concentration, with the rest as either alcohol or some other diluent. You can’t use rubbing alcohol for this, though; rubbing alcohol contains chemical compounds called denaturants that make it smell and taste bad and which will interfere with whatever material you’re diluting. Instead, get the highest proof vodka that you can (the higher the better) and use that to dissolve your test materials. Ideally, you’d want to do this with a scale and only a few grams of raw material. If that’s not possible, a small measuring cup, preferably with a sub-10 milliliter measurement scale, will work just fine.
Once you have diluted your materials, try them out! As mentioned, stick with comparing raw ingredients to those fragrances you know contain the note. It would be pretty silly to look for rose in a fragrance that doesn’t use any. But, once you start to recognize what individual materials smell like as part of the bigger picture, you’ll start to recognize them in the wild, too. Pretty soon, you’ll be amazing friends and fragrance reps alike with your knowledge. You’ll be unstoppable. Just sniff responsibly.

Will Carius

is the founder of Berceuse Parfum and a lifelong lover of all things scented.

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